2-4 Giving birth in beauty: On physical procreation and philosophical creativity

2-4 Giving birth in beauty:  On physical procreation and philosophical creativity

2-4 Giving birth in beauty: On physical procreation and philosophical creativity

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Jessie Patella

Plato’s Symposium brings to the fore six different notions of love. At a drinking party in celebration of Agathon’s literary award, each interlocutor is challenged to deliver an encomium in praise of love. When it is Socrates’ turn, he does something fairly unusual. Rather than delivering a speech in his own words, he recounts what he claims to have learned from Diotima, a wise woman from Mantinea. Indeed, he claims that she taught him “the art of love” (Plato, trans. 2004). Deferring to another person is not the unusual part, insofar as Socrates himself always insists that he does not know anything. What is unusual, particularly given the obviously homoerotic environment of the gathering, is that the person whom he chooses to summon is a woman. That he then claims to have learned the erotic arts from a woman and delivers a speech from a woman’s perspective are both noteworthy, as is the content of the speech itself. As Socrates begins his speech, he notes that, when asked what love is, Diotima answered simply, “What is the real purpose of love?… It is giving birth in beauty, whether in body or in soul” (p. 206). This should give us pause for thought. First of all, it is not immediately clear what giving birth in beauty could be. And more pointedly, in that giving birth is the domain of women, we are left to wonder if Socrates is attempting to highlight the importance of women in understanding the nature of eros. In this paper, I will outline what I believe Socrates to be doing here, via Diotima, when he describes love as giving birth in beauty, and I will argue that rather than giving precedence to women’s experiences and expertise, Socrates’ speech actually works to put women and their experiences under erasure. Moreover, I will also argue that doing so has further implications for women in that it effectively keeps women from pursuing philosophy.

Diotima begins this recounted dialogue with Socrates by claiming that what love wants is not beauty but rather, “reproduction and birth in beauty” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 206). According to Diotima, reproduction becomes an important aspect of eros in that it allows for the possibility of immortality. She says, “Reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality” (p. 207). Hence for love to be meaningful and not simply fleeting, “love must desire immortality” (p. 207). Accordingly, love does not aim at attaining beauty, but rather at giving birth in beauty; these are different things. Indeed, “even attractive souls and bodies are not loved for themselves, but for the immortal fame insured by their compliance… [as] the actual vehicles in which the reproduction takes place” (Neumann, 1965). Erotic desire in this sense is not the desire for a beautiful body for its own sake, rather it is through the beautiful body that reproduction is possible, reproduction being the ultimate goal which allows for the possibility of immortality. In Diotima’s words, “mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible one way only: by reproduction, because it always leaves behind a new young one in place of the old” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 207). Reproduction becomes the vehicle through which human beings are able to achieve immortality, and this immortality is connected with love. She goes on to say, “So don’t be surprised if everything naturally values its own offspring, because it is for the sake of immortality that everything shows this zeal, which is Love” (p. 208). This link between childbirth and immortality becomes important for Diotima’s argument regarding love.

Before talking about giving birth, however, Diotima must begin with pregnancy. From the start, she makes it clear that there are at least two kinds of pregnancy: physical and spiritual. In Diotima’s words, “All of us are pregnant, Socrates, both in body and in soul, and, as soon as we come to a certain age, we naturally desire to give birth” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 206). This is a rather odd claim to make, in that it seemingly eliminates men’s reproductive role. If all of us are pregnant in both body and soul, then there is no need to become impregnated; the process of fertilization is unnecessary. Indeed, “the salient point is that pregnancy does not come about by the agency of the external begetter or male element, since it is innate” (Neumann, 1965, p. 65). Yet we cannot be too quick to assume from this description of innate pregnancy that females are being granted priority. We need only look back to her description of philosophers to see that this cannot be the case.

Diotima describes a lover of wisdom as one who is not perfectly wise. It is only possible, she asserts, to love or to desire something that you do not have. A perfectly wise person would have no cause to seek out wisdom since wisdom would be already contained within the person. Hence, a lover of wisdom is someone who has some wisdom (enough to desire more) but not so much as to quash further longing. She claims that this balance between wisdom and ignorance is inherited from the father and mother respectively, arguing that “it follows that Love must be a lover of wisdom and, as such, is in between being wise and being ignorant. This, too, comes to him from his parentage, from a father who is wise and resourceful and a mother who is not wise and lacks resources” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 204). The mother then, as the one who provides deficiency and lack, cannot easily be identified with abundance (and abundance here may not even be a strong enough word, it is only in overabundance that one feels a need to give birth), particularly not if pregnancy is understood as something innate, as something that doesn’t require implantation. So a physical mother, a woman, cannot be what Diotima is talking about here. Her notion of pregnancy is obviously more complicated.

Likewise, if there is something about a woman’s body that provides her offspring with a deficiency, it cannot be that women and natural pregnancy are what Diotima has in mind when she describes innate pregnancy. In “Spiritual Pregnancy in Plato’s Symposium,” E.E. Pender (1992) has an interesting reading. She wonders if Diotima is making a distinction here between a female type of pregnancy and a male type of pregnancy. Let’s follow this thought through. Recall that for Diotima, pregnancy is innate. While it is possible to understand this as eliminating the male role in reproduction, it is more likely that it does the opposite, pushing aside the female’s contribution to reproduction in favor of the male’s. So what would this look like? Pender argues that there is a male form of pregnancy in the Symposium, one that takes the form of ejaculation. She says, “male ejaculation represents the actual birth of a child and the father is therefore the true parent.” The notion that the father is the true parent is in line with Diotima’s earlier contention that it is from the father that a child inherits wisdom, and it is also in line with her belief that pregnancy is innate. The seed that makes up the ejaculatory fluid is always already within the person (remember Diotima tells Socrates that we are all always pregnant – who this “all” encompasses will become a pressing problem).

Male pregnancy in this sense is “the condition whereby a man is ready to ejaculate his seed, and the subsequent ‘childbirth’ is the ejaculation itself” (Pender, 1992, p. 72). Moreover, “the giving birth here is the ejaculation of seed, not the birth of a child” (p. 79). A justification for this reading can be found in Diotima’s description of the role of beauty in childbirth. She says:

Whenever pregnant animals or persons draw near the beauty, they become gentle and joyfully disposed and give birth and reproduce; but near ugliness they are foul faced and draw back in pain; they turn away and shrink back and do not reproduce, and because they hold on to what they carry inside them, the labor is painful. This is the source of the great excitement about beauty that comes to anyone who is pregnant and already teeming with life: beauty releases them from their great pain (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 206).

The first part of this description makes sense only in regards to a male ejaculatory model of giving birth.

The act of drawing near beauty quite readily parallels the arousal pattern of the man who seeks orgasm. Indeed, being aroused by images of beauty (erotic or otherwise) is one of the conditions for the possibility of this sort of “giving birth.” Conversely, while a woman in labor may be motivated by beautiful images (perhaps the imagined union with her beloved child), this is rather unnecessary given the intensely internal and painful process of natural childbirth. Birth of the female sort, in other words, happens regardless of outside circumstances (the process itself being too intense to allow for the laboring woman to perceive anything but birth pangs). While it may be true that without arousal there can be no ejaculation, it is not true that without beauty there can be no birth.

The second part of Diotima’s description of the relationship between birth and beauty also alludes to male ejaculation. Describing the reaction to the ugly, she says that pregnant bodies “draw back in pain” and that they “turn away and shrink back and do not reproduce.” This very physical imagery calls to mind the loss of an erection. Arguably, an erection is maintained to the point of ejaculation when external forms of beauty positively arouse it, the opposite of which is could also true. Pender explains that when confronted with the ugly, “ejaculation is now impossible.” Or in other words, “The male is no longer aroused, he shrinks up and must bear inside himself the seed to which he wanted to give birth” (Pender, 1992, p. 76). Beauty is, therefore, not loved for its own sake but rather as a means by which mortals give birth.

The language that Diotima has chosen to describe childbirth is in opposition to the actual experience of women who have given birth. Pender (1992) recognizes this and asserts that, “We are witnessing a male pregnancy, and Diotima is not here concerned with the female type of pregnancy which results from intercourse” (p. 75).[1] That is to say, in this understanding of procreation, intercourse is not even necessary. In fact, pregnancy develops in youth. Diotima straightforwardly says, “When someone has been pregnant with these in his soul from early youth, while he is still a virgin, and, having arrived at the proper age, desires to beget and give birth, he too will certainly go about seeking the beautiful in which he would beget” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 209). She is again citing beauty as a necessary condition within which to give birth. But this time she is doing something more. She is consciously moving the metaphor away from the physical to the spiritual. The youth she is describing is pregnant in soul. This move serves a couple of immediate purposes (as well as others, which I will return to later). First, in that men are the ones who are able to supply children (be they real or metaphorical) with wisdom, Diotima clearly moves away from the image of the importance of mothering to one of fathering. Indeed, this ‘male’ pregnancy leads to ejaculation and, thus, the fathering of spiritual children. The lover, in other words, takes the form of a proud father while at the same time co-opting the language and experience of the mother. The mother is completely excised from any important role in the process of reproduction. The male lover gives birth, but this birth giving is akin to ejaculation. Innately pregnant, and therefore in no need of a partner, the male lover gives birth on his own with only the aid of a midwife (the form of beauty). The male then is the active participant in the reproductive process, and moreover, can accomplish this task both in relationship and on his own. Indeed, Diotima herself suggests this when she says, “When he makes contact with someone beautiful and keeps company with him, he conceives and gives birth to what he has been carrying inside of him for ages. And whether they are together or apart, he remembers that beauty” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 209). This spiritual metaphor of procreation does correspond to a physical experience of pregnancy and childbirth, but it only does so by divorcing it from its natural home (the woman) and its natural product (human children). Unlike the physically pregnant woman who becomes pregnant through intercourse with a lover and gives birth to a human child, the spiritually pregnant male is autonomous and can use imagination (indeed the faculties of his own mind) in order to achieve the same end.

The independence of the process is not the only reason that Diotima believes the spiritual pregnancy to be superior. Diotima suggests that “such people [those who are spiritually pregnant], have much more to share than do the parents of human children, and have firmer bonds of friendship, because the children in whom they have a share are more beautiful and more immortal” (Plato, trans. 2004, p. 209). Following this, she also states that “everyone would rather have such children than human ones” (p. 210). The reason that soul-children are more important than human ones is presumably because they (qua ideas, poetry or books) can outlive people. Indeed, Diotima says, “[Everyone] would look up to Homer, Hesiod, and the other good poets with envy and admiration for the offspring they have left behind – offspring, which, because they are immortal themselves, provide their parents with immortal glory and remembrance” (p. 210). While she does not speak of the poets and physical pregnancy, here, she does imply that there is something about the creative process that is akin to pregnancy, and that the soul-child that is produced through this creative process is more valuable than the human child produced through natural procreation.

Further, while she does not say that the sort of spiritual pregnancy that is alive in the poets, writers, and philosophers is a male form of pregnancy, or that the physical one is a female one, this connection becomes clear. In attempting to prioritize spiritual pregnancy over physical pregnancy, she first distances pregnancy from anything recognizable to women and instead makes it look like a distinctly male activity. Diotima’s metaphorical appropriation has implications that reach far beyond this particular Platonic dialogue. Indeed, I will now turn to more contemporary echoes of Diotima’s metaphor presented by male writers and philosophers, with a particular emphasis on what sort of impact this metaphorical appropriation has on women and their understanding of their own contributions and possibilities.

Poet Ranier Maria Rilke claims fairly boldly that both men and women desire labor and delivery:

Perhaps over all there is a great motherhood, like a common longing. The beauty of the virgin, a being “that has not yet achieved anything,” is motherhood that begins to see itself and to prepare, is fearful and desirous. And the mother’s beauty is ministering motherhood, and in the old woman is a great remembering. And even in the man there is motherhood, it seems to me, bodily and mental; his procreating is also a kind of bearing, and bearing it is when he creates out of his inmost fullness (as cited in Simenauer, 1954).

Rilke starts off with a softer claim, that both men and women desire to experience motherhood, but quickly moves on to the stronger one—that men and women desire not only to experience it but that they in fact do experience it. Clearly, he does not mean that they both physically carry to term and deliver a child. When Rilke says that in “man there is motherhood,” he is using motherhood as a metaphor for something else. This something else becomes apparent when he says, “For creative work too springs from the physical, is of one nature with it and only like a gentler, more ecstatic and more everlasting repetition of physical delight” (as cited in Simenauer, 1954, p. 239).

Like Rilke, James Joyce draws a parallel between the process whereby he “gives birth” to books and the one where his wife gives birth to her children. In a 1912 letter to her he writes,

I went then into the backroom of the office and sitting at the table, thinking of the book I have written, the child which I have carried for years and years in the womb of the imagination as you carried in your womb the children you love, and of how I had fed it day after day out of my brain and my memory (as cited in Friedman, 1987, p. 57).

Susan Stanford Friedman (1987) points out that for Joyce, “women produce infants through the channel of flesh,” while men, conversely, “produce a brainchild through the agency of language” (p. 58).

Yet, this parallel structure sets up a dichotomy whereby women are relegated to one form of work and men to another. For this reason, the use of this metaphor—comparing the creative process (particularly when it is assumed that men are creative) to childbirth—becomes deeply problematic when such a metaphor effectively excludes women from creative work. Women, in other words, are procreative while men are creative, and these processes are not equal.

A closer examination of the way in which the metaphor of childbirth functions, in the Symposium, to exclude women, is warranted. While using the overtly female image of pregnancy, Plato nevertheless manages to completely obscure the role of women in the process. It becomes clear that what Plato is talking about is a spiritual pregnancy, the offspring of which is the domain of men, not women. In order to understand how the use of this metaphor elevates the creative over the procreative, I first turn back to Rilke and his understanding of himself as an artist. In E.M. Butler’s (1941) analysis, Rilke’s

hushed reverence towards the phenomenon of motherhood cannot disguise the fact that in a poetical and adoring way he was relegating women to the sphere which popular prejudice has always assigned to them…since children are their work of art, they have no need (and indeed no right) to produce others (p. 24).

While Rilke, in other words, pays homage to the process of childbirth, he clearly asserts the superiority of the artist’s creativity, equating it with God’s; indeed, Rilke believes, in a theological sense, that the “man-artist is chosen” (Simenauer, 1954, p. 244). In as much as the artist is chosen (unlike the mother), one is lead to conclude that the male comparison of creativity with woman’s procreativity is not an equal one. Or in other words, “This elevation of procreativity seemingly idealizes woman and thereby obscures woman’s real lack of authority to create art as well as babies.” Moreover, “As an appropriation of woman’s (pro)creativity, the male metaphor subtly helps to perpetuate the confinement of women to procreation” (Friedman, 1987, p. 64). Rilke, in other words, pronounces the superiority of the male artist over women in the creative sphere, which by nature and by experience of countless generations, has been unquestionably reserved for men.

In using the metaphor of childbirth as a metaphor for the creative process, Rilke, among others, implicitly asserts the superiority of the artist over the mother. Friedman (1987) spells out this process in a rather explicit way:

Creation is the act of the mind that brings something new into existence. Procreation is the act of the body that reproduces the species. A man conceives an idea in his brain, a woman conceives a baby in her womb… The pregnant body is necessarily female, the pregnant mind is the mental providence of genius, most frequently understood to be inherently masculine (p. 52).

While the metaphor draws together body and mind, womb and word, it also evokes the patriarchal division of labor. Or as Kittay (1998) aptly remarks, “Man’s metaphoric identification with woman is combined with a supervaluation of man’s activities and a metaphoric appropriation of the relevant relations which pertain in the female domain via a transportation of these relations on to an exclusively male domain” (p. 73). That is to say, where man metaphorically identifies himself with woman, we can almost always find an accompanying statement in which the man, at once, dissociates himself from the devaluation of the literal female activity by the supervaluation of his identified male activity. Man, as the subject and the topic of all activities, uses woman as a vehicle for his own self-conception, but in doing so, his own activities remain prior and superior to those of women. This is already present in Diotima’s speech. While it can be argued that prolonged descriptions of the female’s role in eros or procreation would be out of place in the homoerotic environment of the Symposium, it is not enough to say just this. Instead, we must ask if there are deeper reasons (perhaps reasons having to do with protecting philosophy as a domain exclusive to these men) to employ such metaphors while at the same time completely divorcing them from women. The fact that Plato is “seeking to impress on his readers the pleasures of spiritual procreation” (Pender, 1992, p. 79) while he completely obscures what happens after pregnancy and labor should not go unnoticed.

The devaluation of the feminine sphere lies, in part, in the structure of the metaphor. Metaphor, for it to function properly, requires that something from one domain stand in for something from an entirely different one. That is, where woman and her domains are employed as a metaphor for some other human enterprise, the latter is viewed as belonging exclusively to man:

Since one thing is always a metaphor for something other than itself, a woman’s procreativity would only be a metaphor for a man’s creative. Unfortunately, woman has served, in our intellectual his/story, as a symbol of or a metaphor for, but not as an actor in the life of the mental and spiritual (Pender, 1992, p. 79).

The metaphor, in other words, plays on the relation between creation and procreation, causing women to be identified with the body and men with the intellect, an “identification which makes woman the vehicle for intellectual creativity, and at once excludes her as participant of that cerebral creativity” (Kittay, 1998, p. 79).

In summary, the male use of the childbirth metaphor for his own creative activities amounts to Othering women, especially in order to exclude them from traditionally male domains. If women were to be considered full participants in these domains, the metaphor would cease to work as a metaphor, as that which compares two dissimilar things. That is, man appropriates the metaphor of childbirth in order to grant legitimacy to his own projects, indeed in order to understand himself as also a possessor of creative potentiality, but he does so at woman’s expense. In other words, he Others and excludes woman by his instrumentalization of her as a mediator between himself and his world.

In the Symposium Socrates recounts a conversation that he has with Diotima, a wise woman. There is no evidence that Diotima is not someone that Socrates just made up for rhetorical purposes and as such we need to ask why he would do this. Earlier I suggested that this is not entirely out of character, in the sense that Socrates does not lay claim to wisdom himself. Yet Diotima is a woman who is being summoned in an entirely male audience. Moreover, Diotima is a woman who begins to talk about love by talking about what it means to give birth in beauty, giving birth of course being the domain of women. Even more interestingly, Diotima puts forward an argument regarding childbirth that in no way resembles the experience of women who have given birth. It seems that two things are going on here, one of which is overt and the other of which is rather sneaky. Overtly, Diotima very quickly distances childbirth from anything which resembles the female experience of childbirth in order to elevate the male equivalent (or at least the metaphorical equivalent). Covertly, her identity as a woman confuses the audience. Indeed, it takes men like Rilke and Joyce making the same sorts of claims to make the prioritization of men’s activities clear. When a man straightforwardly appropriates the feminine domain in order to grant legitimately to his own, it becomes evident that part of this motivation is to exclude women from his imagined sphere of activities; after all what he is doing is something entirely other (otherwise the metaphor breaks down as a metaphor). From the mouth of a woman this move is smoothed over to the point that it is hardly recognizable. Plato, in other words, uses Diotima as an instrument that does violence to natural pregnancy and to women in general. Her identity as a woman and her beautiful rhetoric hide the fact that Socrates’ conception of love is one that insists on solidifying hierarchical binaries: soul/body, man/woman, creative/procreative. In order for women to be able to enter the philosophical arena, these sorts of binaries will have to be undone.

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About the author:

is an independent researcher who is interested in feminism, female embodiment and reproductive justice. She is also a practicing doula. She has an MA in philosophy with a concentration in women's and gender studies from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and an MA in theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.


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